As actor Kendra Munger says at the end of our conversation (transcribed below), former New Canaan residents like her inhabit much of the world.
In this feature, we catch up with those “Ex-Canaanites” for a snapshot of where they are now and talk about New Canaan—their experiences and memories here, current ties to the “Next Station to Heaven” and how it’s changed since they lived in town.
A Los Angeles resident now and delighted with the warm weather, Kendra is busy: She co-hosted Sunday’s International Press Academy Satellite Awards in Los Angeles, just shot a commercial with Andre Agassi and Stefi Graf, wrapped the short film “The Spymaster” and plays the ghost of Peg Entwistle (the actress who, at age 24 amid the Great Depression, leapt to her death from the ‘H’ in the Hollywood sign) in the gothic Web series “They Live Among Us.”
I wanted to kickstart this feature with someone I know, and I’ve known the Mungers for 30 years. The photo at right shows Kendra on a ball field at Saxe in her baseball uniform with the Ontarios, part of New Canaan’s Bantam baseball league. Her dad, former New Canaan fire commissioner Rip Munger, assistant-coached me and my brother Terry—as well as Kendra’s little brother, Geoff, a good friend—on that same team around 1982.
I found Kendra frank, funny and even nostalgic for a New Canaan that, in some ways, no longer exists. We join the conversation after she tells me how the Agassi-Graf job has allowed her to spend time acting rather than with what actors in Los Angeles call “survival jobs.”
“Everybody has them, unless you’re a name,” she said.
New Canaanite: How long have you been out in L.A.?
Kendra Munger: I’ve been in L.A. since a couple of weeks before 9/11. It was a little funky at first because I didn’t know anyone else out here. I just knew that it was the next thing I needed to do. And Geoffrey drove with me. We set out in a ‘97 Toyota Corolla and did a brother-sister trip. He dropped me off and flew back.
And when you moved out there, had you been living in New Canaan?
KM: Yes. After college I lived in Florida for about a year. Actually I did an apprenticeship at Jupiter Theatre and one of my co-apprentices is up for an Oscar. She wrote the lyrics for “Frozen,” so that’s kind of exciting. I was mostly living at my parents’ place, but then I would go out and do regional theater or tours, and then I would come back to New Canaan as a home base. And then when I did a show in New York, I lived in New York for the period of the show. Actually, on Facebook I recently connected with a lot of New Canaanites that I grew up with, so that’s been cool.
So you grew up here in town?
Were you born here?
KM: I was born at Greenwich Hospital, and we were living in New Canaan. We switched houses once.
Where was the first house?
KM: We were originally on Hickory Lane and I was really sad to see that the house just got lost to the McMansion craze within the last year. Every once in a while I would drive by to see if it was still standing. It was this kind of interesting A-frame house set back in the woods. And I have some memories of it. We moved, I think on Geoffrey’s second birthday. I would have been about three.
Then you moved to Horton Lane.
KM: Mmm hmm. And when I started out doing summer theater at the Y, with Spotlight Summer Theatre, Geoffrey was in the first couple of shows I did, and we used to bike from the house to YMCA every day, on the back roads on Butler Lane and all that, so that was a fun childhood memory.
Talk more about your New Canaan memories.
KM: I always come back for Christmas, except I think only one year we [the family] didn’t [gather in New Canaan; editor’s note: the Mungers gathered in Vancouver that year], and what I love is the caroling on Christmas Eve. I think that’s so special and I always go. And Geoffrey gets annoyed that I sing any descants that I know.
Any what? Any what that you know?
KM: Any descants. Like if I know any descants for the songs, I sing them.
What does that mean?
KM: You know, like ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ (Sings a descant.) I sing the soprano part or something like that, and he just thinks I’m showing off. But I think everyone should sing different parts and it sounds really good. That’s my opinion, but you know, the brother has got to find something wrong with that.
KM: But I love it [Christmas Eve caroling at God’s Acre.] I think it’s almost magical, every year. And I was so excited that we got a little dusting of snow this year because when my dad picked me up from airport, I said ‘I want a white Christmas’ and he said it didn’t look like it was in the forecast. But we did get a little bit of snow. See? I asked for that. (Laughs.)
So you come back every Christmas.
KM: And actually have been coming back for Thanksgiving every year, too, because we did almost lose a friend on 9/11. He made it out. He was on the 91st floor of Tower One. So I needed to come back that first year, and then I got into the habit. It’s such a special time. And then Geoff and I both came back for my dad’s birthday this past year.
Tell me more about Thanksgiving. You’re saying you come home for the holiday because of a close tie to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?
KM: Yes. I’m not sure that I even told my family that. I think that first Thanksgiving I wasn’t going to come back because I couldn’t right away. But then I realized that the same four families have had the same Thanksgiving together since before I was born. They’re ‘family’ though they’re not blood family. So that [coming home for Thanksgiving] just became very important.
So the close friend, who was in tower one, he’s a member of one of these four families.
KM: Yes, exactly.
Got it. I didn’t realize that. Tell me more about the facts of you in New Canaan. Where did you go to school?
KM: I went to New Canaan Country School from first to ninth grade, and then I went to New Canaan High School through 12th grade.
When did you graduate from New Canaan High School?
KM: (Laughs.) A long time ago. Just before Geoffrey did. And my classmates know when it was.
Aha. Where did you go to college?
What degree did you get there?
KM: I already knew I was acting. I got a Bachelor of Science in theater. It’s a little more intensive than the Bachelor of Arts.
Talk about New Canaan. Things that stick out in your mind when you think of back home.
KM: I’m always struck by how physically beautiful it is. Living out in Los Angeles, there’s a lot of brown and yellow. It’s dry. I came back for my dad’s birthday in the middle of May, and the greens are just emerald green. It’s just so beautiful and I love the look with all the stone walls. I am a little sad that there’s a trend that’s mostly happened since I moved away of clear-cutting. I know some of it is that people worry about Lyme disease. But it does make me very sad. For me, the natural beauty is what’s so beautiful about the area. I kind of grew up playing in woods, and going to Waveny and playing in the woods there. To me, seeing a wooded backyard is the height of beauty. And seeing a clear-cut, perfectly manicured lawn is not. That’s a personal thing.
What else about New Canaan?
KM: I like how educated everyone is. It’s rough in some ways. There is definitely the drive and the emphasis on sports and that for a more creative child growing up can be difficult, especially if you are not sports-inclined. Maybe not always having the right clothes is very important. There are those pressures. You weigh that against the fact that it is a nice place to grow up in other ways, especially the education. My education especially, at New Canaan Country School. It was traumatic sometimes, because there was a lot of psychological bullying by other girls in my years growing up there. But the education I am grateful for, the high school and especially New Canaan Country School.
When you come back and you’re downtown, are there places you like to go that you remember from your childhood or youth?
KM: It’s not downtown but I like to go to Waveny. I feel like Waveny is such a gift and I feel grateful to the Laphams. When I walk those trails and go to the mansion there, I experience such a sense of gratitude to them. They could have just sold it and it could have been parceled up and subdivided. But it’s this incredible gift for the town to enjoy. It’s so special, so unusual. I always try to go there and I love watching the dogs in the new dog park that they have.
What about downtown?
KM: You know where we sometimes will go to: What’s that pizza place? A small pizza place, say you turn right down Cherry Street from Main Street and then you go right again.
You’re talking about New Canaan Pizza. It’s set back from the road.
KM: Yes, next to the fish market.
I have to tell you something about that. Your mom created an addiction for me, probably 20 years ago. She ordered an eggplant-and-onion pizza from New Canaan Pizza one time when I was over, and it has become something I need on a regular basis, whenever I’m in the mood for that sort of thicker crust, deeper dish pizza.
KM: I just love them, because I know they’re the type of establishment where they support their own community. I think they used to buy ads in the programs for New Canaan Summer Theatre and the Spotlight Theatre. And I think they used to support Geoffrey with the swimming. It’s such a give-back-to-the-community establishment. They’ve always been there. I always know them.
That’s Tommy back there, making the pizza.
KM: And sometimes we will pop into the firehouse. Some of the guys still remember my dad. It’s getting so more of them don’t.
Tell me about your dad’s involvement in the Fire Department.
KM: He was the fire commissioner for a number of years.
KM: I can find out. It was my high school to college years.
Right, but you’re not going to tell me specifically when you went to high school.
KM: Well, I’m not going to get mad at you if you say that. I’m just training myself not to say that.
Can you ballpark when your dad was commissioner, just for the readers?
KM: Yes. But I can also get it for sure.
Ballpark it for now.
KM: Probably in the 1990s. [Later emailed that Rip Munger was fire commissioner from 1984 to 2006.]
KM: I used to go back to the high school, too, to visit Mrs. Guda. Wendy Guda was my math teacher and she brilliantly made math understandable to me. I always had a problem with math but she was so cool. She would make these little jokes. She would be passing out tests we’d taken and put it down in front of me and say, ‘Kendra, it looks like you’re staying after class so that we can figure out what you didn’t understand.’ And then she would stay after school and work with you, she’d want to know. She was great. I always come back and visit her and I come back and visit Mr. Sjogren from the Madrigals.
KM: Mr. Sjogren, he was—
—How do you spell that?
KM: S-J-O-G-R-E-N. Arthur Sjogren. He ran the concert choir and the Madrigals, and every other year, the Madrigals would go on tour, and in my junior year we toured to India. That was pretty amazing. He was amazing too. Just recently retired.
KM: Mr. [Jim] Luongo. He taught English and he directed me in some shows. I’ve lost touch with him. I used to go back and visit with them. Haven’t recently.
Do you see yourself on the west coast permanently?
KM: I do. I love working in film and TV and I like the warm weather. And I do like that when I walk out of the door and here in this town where so many people are involved in show business that there are so many people you could run into that you also work with. I am attracted to the people from the East Coast. When I first moved out here, the culture so different that I felt like I had moved to different country that shared the same language.
KM: I missed that when you, say, went to party on the East Coast, the discussion would cover world events and maybe it was a more intellectual discussion. It is true that in L.A. you go to a party and the entire discussion is about what’s going on in showbiz. It’s this bubble. It bothered me at first but I got used to it.
Your brother is no longer based here, and let’s imagine your parents decide to move elsewhere, say they move permanently to Canada or somewhere else. Would you have reason to come back?
KM: If I was in New York for work, I would probably want to catch a Metro-North train and go to New Canaan if I could. But you know, a lot of my contemporaries did move away. We’re spread out. My best friend from New Canaan Country School, she lives in Colorado. Everyone seems to have moved to Colorado. Friends from high school are living in France and Germany. We definitely send them out into the world from New Canaan.
Following our interview, Kendra emailed and asked that we include a note saying that she also has deep connections to the New Canaan Mounted Troop. “I have gone back there to visit the beautiful new bar,” she said. “It made me really happy. It looks wonderful!”
Finally, here’s a news video clip from the Satellite Awards: